Sarasvati Veena : Origin and Development

There is today a widely prevalent view, inaugurated probably by the late Prof. P. Sambamoorthy that the prototype of the modern South Indian (Sarasvati) veena may be traced to the (Achyuta) Raghunata mela veena described in the Sangeethasudha in c.1620 A.D. by Govinda Deekshita in Tanjore. This article is intended to set the record straight, viz. the prototype of the modern South Indian veena is not Raghunatha mela veena but the Tulajendra mela veena described by Tulajendra in his Sangeethasaramritam in c. 1730 A.D. in Tanjore.

Raghunatha mela Veena

Sangeethasudha attributes its authorship to Raghunatha nayaka, king of Tanjore (1614-1632/3 A.D.) but Vekatamakhin claims in his Chaturdandiprakashika (1.154 A, B, C) that Sangeethasudha was authored by his father Govinda Deekshita and that the Raghunata mela veena was created by him and dedicated Raghunatha nayaka.

Sangeethasudha describes (2.324-444, pp.153-155) only three veena melas (keyboards), viz. shuddha mela veena, madhya mela veena, and Raghunatha mela veena. Even a casual study of these is enough to convince one that none of them can be prototype of the modern South Indian veena. The shuddha mela veena and madhya mela veena are in total accord with those described earlier by Ramamatya (Svaramelakalanidhi), Somanatha (Ragavibodha) and Pandarika Vitthala (Sadragachandrodaya) and are thus tuned to anumandra sa – anumandra pa – mandra sa – mandra ma (shuddha mela veena) and to anumandra pa- mandra sa – mandra pa – mandra (!) sa (madhya mela veena) in their four upper strings. As done by previous authorities, shuddha mela veena is taken as prakriti (model or standard of reference) for key setting (mela) with extrapolation, mutatis mutandis, in madhya mela veena and raghunatha mela veena. Thus the shuddha mela veena keyboard carries only the following twelve (not the modern 23) keys on the sa – string, generating the following intervals (2.430, 431, p. 154; 2.423 – 434, p.154): on long keys, common to all strings: meru – sa; 1. (shuddha) rishabha 2. shuddha gandhara 3. sadharana gandhara 4. chyutamadhyama gandhara 5. shuddha madhyama 6. chyuta panchama madhyama; on short keys (only for sa string) 7. panchama 8. (shuddha) dhaivata 9. shuddha nishada 10. kaishiki nishada 11. kakali nishada 12. tara shadja. The notes chyuta madhyama gandhara (no.4), chyuta panchama madhyama (no.6) correspond to their modern analogues antara gandhara and pratimadhyama respectively while kakali nishanda (no.11) refers to its ancient namesake which was one shruti less than the corresponding modern notes.

He thus athetises ancient antara gandhara and the contemporary chyuta shadja nishada of his predecessors and reduces the intervals to twelve in the octave. He does not employ panchashruti ri and panchashruti dha as equivalents of shuddha ga and shuddha ni respectively in this context, although he does so in the raga descriptions.

His own son Venkatamakhin totally athetises the ancient antara gandhara and kakali nishada of archaic use, but retains these names for chyuta madhyama gandhara and chyuta shadja nishada respectively, thus ushering in the modern twelve semitone scale of Karnatic music. Tara shadja (no.12) clearly limits the range of this keyboard while that of the modern keyboard is atitara shadja.

It may be noted that the second and fourth strings of madhya mela veena, are tuned to sa of the selfsame mandra register, identically by both Ramamatya and Govinda Deekshita. Venkatamakhin denounces and ridicules Ramamatya for this but passes over the same in Govinda Deekshita with total silence!

Govinda Deekshita cannot be credited with inventing or inaugurating the modern veena keyboard of Karnatic music because

  1. His accordatura is of shuddha mela veena, whereas that of the modern veena is of madhya mela veena.
  2. The modern veena keyboard obviates the need of shorter and longer keys.
  3. Chyuta madhyama gandhara and kakali nishada are incompatible as consonants and the latter (archaic) note is no longer used in modern Carnatic music.
  4. He prescribes only twelve keys on the strings whereas the modern veena keyboard has twenty three, excluding the meru (nut).
  5. Sangeethasudha is confused and opaque in respect of three major cruxes, viz. ‘dvaadasha parvasu’ and ‘shishteshu’ and ‘sakalaah’. These cannot be resolved with any degree of certainty.

Venkatamakhin extracts three verses from Sangeethasudha in his Chaturdandiprakashika (1.154 A,B,C) and offers the following textual exegesis in respect of Raghunatha mela veena: If the open string in madhya mela veena on (the same string) turns out to be sa of the Raghunatha mela veena. This is how veena players perform on this veena. Thus every not on the Raghunatha mela veena is exactly one fifth higher than the corresponding note on the madhya mela veena.

This amounts to making ‘ma’ the aadhaara shruti on the sa-string and thus to modal shift of tonic (graha bheda or shruti beda) to ma. This is known as ‘madhyamashruthi tuning’ in modern Karnatic musical parlance and is commonly employed in performing ragas such as janjhooti, punnagavarali, kuntalavarali and manirangu. Govinda Deekshita has invented this tuning technique to serve interconvertibility between shuddha mela veena and madhya mela veena. It has survived till our own time as an extrapolatory device to raise the range by one half of an octave (e.g. to accommodate female voices).

Tulajendra mela veena

Analysing the collative sources of Sangeethasaramritam available at the Tanjore Saraswathi Mahal library, Dr. V. Raghavan shows that Mss. Nos. 10787, 10800,10801 and 10789 of the work contain valuable additions to the Svara chapter not found in the Pt. S. Subrahmanya Sastri edition. These include a description of the Tulajendra mela veena as noted by Dr. Raghavan in his Introduction to the work (pp.xx,xxi): This passage may be translated (freely) thus:

Description of Tulajendra mela veena

‘Now will be described the veena created by Tulaja wherein lie twenty-three smooth, bronze rods (frets) in between the meru and the shadja called atitara which are raised at both ends on the pravaala (walls of the keyboard) and (slightly) low (concave) at the middle; which is attractive with seven pegs and with other prescribed characteristics, in which the effort in setting the keyboard (is minimal) —– This is replete with all (desirable) lakshanas, is splendid with all decorations (with all desired varna alamkaras, i.e. phrases of melodic movement), which fulfills all the (musical and extramusical) desires of the performer and forever captivates the hearts of veena performers. The ekatantree veena, vipanchi veena and three stringed veena are but subordinates of Tulajendra mela veena. Except for differences in shape, all the veenas described under the names of the authors in their own works are alike in the world from the point of view of svara arrangement scheme alone. How indeed, can all these other veenas, ever equal this form of the veena created by Tulajendra in his own name in his own treatise? Therefore this alone is important, best of all veenas. Those who desire to perform correctly and wholly should take only to this veena, wherein instrumental virtuosity accrues without fatigue; aspirants who desire to practice with felicity should also take up only this (instrument).

This leaves one in no doubt at all regard to its claim as the prototype of the modern south Indian veena in every essential. It is the consummation of a long experiment and design. Recent engineering and technological innovations, while only peripheral to its fundamental purpose and function, are certainly welcome in as much as they help in the realisation of its dream of beauty in sound and form.